In the wake of revelations that Russian 15-year old superstar figure skater Kamila Valieva tested positive for a banned substance, there is a thought that has been making me uneasy ever since I learned the news. That is, the imbalance that exists between Valieva and her coach Eteri Tutberidze. The particular imbalance I am thinking about goes beyond the one that exists between a coach-athlete or an adult-child. But rather, the stomach churning thought that Valieva is going to face the brunt of the consequences while Tutberidze will face little if any of them at all.
Let’s look at this from Russia’s perspective:
Russia is a country where its government has emphasized a “Russia against the outside world” narrative in its state-controlled media. The Russian response to its near-decade long doping scandal has been stories of how Western-aligned institutions are out to get Russia. That many of the athletes caught up in doping scandals are the victims of a great injustice.
On the domestic front, I seriously doubt that Russia’s governing bodies are going to sanction Tutberidze in a significant way. That means handicapping a proven winner. That means highlighting institutional corruption in a country where its government is trying to downplay any perception of rampant corruption. Most significantly, it means taking the results of an anti-doping institution and acknowledging them as legitimate. In the process, completely contradicting so much of the previous rhetoric where Russia has declare concerns of a rampant doping problem are unwarranted and brought upon by those with an anti-Russian agenda.
Let’s look at this from a legal perspective:
It is without question that somewhere along the way an adult failed Kamila Valieva. We know this, we know an adult failed her, but we don’t know which adult it was. Tutberidze is the obvious choice for the individual most responsible for Valieva’s failed test, but that viewpoint is based on conjecture and assumption. But for enforcers, it is not what you know, it is what you can prove.
Tutberidze could argue someone outside her inner-circle coerced Valieva into taking a banned substance. Hypothetically coming up with a story where Valieva went home on holiday and the banned substance was introduced while she was away from Sambo-70. As unlikely as this scenario may seem, it is at the crux of this case. Any “guilty by association” penalty levied against Tutberidze creates a scenario where a coach will be penalized even if she insisted her child-athlete not ingest a banned substance, and the child-athlete did it anyways without her knowledge is now theoretically possible.
This particular element of the case may become an obstacle if any governing body tries to hold Tutberidze directly responsible. Until other Sambo-70 skaters start failing doping controls or evidence is presented demonstrating Tutberidze attempted to pressure her athletes into ingesting banned substances, it is a murky path blaming this directly on Tutberidze. There is also the possibility of Russia placing all the blame on a team doctor and presenting Tutberidze as the coach who was too medically ignorant to understand what was occurring.
Let’s look at this from Eteri Tutberidze’s perspective.
She is a proven winner and even if extreme sanctions are placed on her coaching career, she will still have viable options in spite of any potential restrictions. Her previous track record will encourage hundreds, if not thousands of parents to have their children take lessons from Tutberidze, even if she can’t officially take them to competitions.
Tutberidze is a Russian coach, but has spent significant time coaching in the United States and even has an American-born daughter. Giving Tutberidze the previous experience to coach outside of Russia if it comes to that. The alarming number of parents who continued to bring their daughters to Maggie Haney after she was severely sanctioned will look trivial compared to Tutberidze who has been the most successful coach of the past decade in her respective sport.
There are few scenarios where this ends up being nothing more than a speed bump in Eteri Tutberidze’s career. Whether its producing a new lineup of dominant skaters at the 2026 Olympics, or coaching privately while collecting large coaching fees from parents who want their daughter coached by an Olympic-level coach, Tutberidze’s career will continue.
The reason why problematic coaches are so prevalent in the Olympic sports is because they enjoy legal protections that make it difficult to fully punish them and can always bounce back. That’s not the case for Kamila Valieva who competes in a sport where the careers are so short and skates for a program that is likely to replace her with a younger athlete by 2026. Athletes come and go, but the same coaches always remain.
But athletes always take center stage while coaches often operate in the shadows.
It is not the name “Eteri Tutberidze” that is dominating international headlines, but “Kamila Valieva.” The once flawless 15-year old now has a tarnished reputation where her status as a gifted athlete is being called into question. Her once pioneering performances are now being questioned if doping was the only reason they were possible. That’s if people are being generous and not directly accusing her of someone who chose to cheat to win. Even Anna Shcherbakova and Alexandra Trusova are likely to get caught in the crossfire as casual fans will constantly ask “is that the one who doped” for the rest of their careers.
For Kamila Valieva, the best case scenario is she gets through the Olympics with her reputation in shatters. Having a career like Chinese gymnast He Kexin where even though she was one of the most gifted and beloved athletes within her respective sport, outside of her sport she is primarily known for a scandal. The “age controversy” section of He Kexin’s Wikipedia page is longer than the section recapping her athletic career which includes medals in two different Olympics and multiple Olympic golds. And the same is true for He Kexin’s profile page in the OlyMadMen database, the largest database covering Olympic sports history.
The opinions of gymnastics and figure skating fans are the minority as every Olympics brings in millions of casual observers that dwarf the hardcore followings of each Olympic sport. Making it difficult for an athlete like He Kexin and Kamila Valieva to ever undo all the negative attention that was thrown their way.
Tutberidze’s name isn’t being dragged around as much, even if the negative attention she has received so far is the greatest tribulation of her career. But Tutberidze could easily return to glory if she gets another skater to the Olympics. Maybe 2026, 2032, or perhaps a decade after. As is the case in sports, athletes have short careers, but coaches last for decades. One of the great flaws in sports is that future success will always stifle criticism of past transgressions.
Kamila Valieva’s worst case scenario is that she may very well complete a career without ever having won an Olympic medal despite her undeniable talent as an all-time great. Virtually everyone agrees that a 15-year old is too young to be blamed for a doping scandal and what this amounts to is child abuse. The only saving grace for Valieva is that Russia will always support her and treat Kamila as their heroine.
Kamila Valieva is the one suffering the brunt of the consequences, the one where it is far more likely to have this incident be what ruins her athletic career. But like so many coaches who shouldn’t, Eteri Tutberidze is likely to bounce back.